Kate Smith courtesy photo
Kate Smith courtesy photo

Sounds of birds chirping through the spring Georgia air welcomed fans to the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in March. Kate Smith was enjoying it, too, leading the competition at Champions Retreat Golf Club. She was on a roll, but a storm quickly moved into the area and everything on hold.

Smith, a fifth-year senior on the Nebraska women’s golf team, led the second-ever Augusta National Women’s Amateur after 11 holes with a score of four-under-par. Everything was clicking.

“I hit some really good shots on pretty tough holes and made the putts, which was great. I birdied number five, which is probably one of the hardest holes on the course,” Smith said. “Just some of those, you’re thinking ‘OK, that’s two shots on the field right there.’”

After making par on number eight, Smith and her caddy, Karter, also her older brother, were shocked when they realized her score was tied for the lead.

“I got up to nine, and I looked at the leaderboard. I was two-under at that point and I saw one-under was fourth on the leaderboard. I said ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m in a good position,’” Smith said. “Then, I turned around and made a birdie on nine.”

One week prior to the start of this year’s tournament, Smith grabbed her first collegiate title at the Allstate Sugar Bowl Intercollegiate on April 7. Days later, Smith was leading a 72-player field consisting of the top college-aged amateurs in the world and trying to be the first champion since Jennifer Kupcho who won the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur in 2019. The 2020 tournament was cancelled due to COVID.

It wasn’t an easy process getting to the tournament with pandemic precautions for all players, staff and spectators. The possibility of playing Augusta National wasn’t making Smith nervous, testing negative for COVID was.

“I think we (Smith’s caddy/brother) were both a little quiet because we knew when we landed we had to get COVID tested,” Smith said. “A few days leading up to the tournament, a couple girls from Texas tested positive and had to back out of the event, so I think the COVID tests were making us pretty nervous. We were just hoping to get cleared so then we could talk about the week to come.”

“It was almost like her mindset throughout the week was that she was just grateful to be there,” Karter said.

The two siblings tested negative and so did their parents, Kris and Margery, who drove down from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota to watch their daughter compete. The first two rounds of the tournament are held at the Champions Retreat Golf Club, which is about 30 minutes away from Augusta National. Only players who make the cut after the second round get to play their third round at Augusta National.

When Smith was walking through Champions Retreat for the first time, it hit her; she was on the big stage.

“Champions Retreat is one of the nicest facilities I’ve ever been to, so it definitely makes for a great week. I think a lot of the media gives the tournament a hard time because not all three rounds are played at Augusta, but they took care of us pretty well,” Smith said. “They have a wonderful practice facility, and it’s kind of set up like a tour event. They had brand new Pro V1 golf balls everywhere and ropes around all the practice facilities. It was like, OK, we arrived.”

Back in February, Smith told UNLimited Sports that her mentality heading into the tournament was to simply embrace the moment and control what she could control. Her brother noticed that heading in.

“It was almost like her mindset throughout the week was that she was just grateful to be there,” Karter said.

Smith was ready to embrace the moment, but when she showed up to Champions Retreat for her opening round Wednesday morning, she had a certain type of chip on her shoulder.

“I was having that underdog feeling because during the practice rounds and during the first round, the cameras follow around certain girls and want certain interviews,” Smith said. “It was nice because no one was expecting anything from me, so I got to just go out and have fun.”

Smith was enjoying her time in Georgia as she found herself tied for the lead after eight holes in the first round. The national media members were now scrambling to find out which hole she was on.

“She seemed to make every consequential putt, including a couple others for birdie,” Smith’s father, Kris, said. “After she birdied nine, I told my wife, ‘Man, the cameras are going to be out here pretty soon.’”

Sure enough, minutes later, they arrived.

“I was getting to 10 and I saw Kay Cockerill, Amanda Balionis and all these sports writers. I was like, ‘Ah, this is so cool,’” Smith said. “Then I made a birdie on 10. I felt like I was living my dream. However that round ended, I was gonna be happy.”

“It was like the paparazzi showed up,” Karter added.

Karsin believes he makes a good caddy for his sister because he knows her on a personal level and he knows her game. But because of the environment his sister was competing in, her performance during that first round was something he had never seen before.

“I’ve seen her play golf like that before, but on that difficult of a golf course and on that stage, obviously I’d never seen it,” Karter said. “She was just on top of her game.”

Coming off a par on hole 11, Smith had some momentum heading into the final stretch. Things were looking good until some rain started moving into the area.

“On hole 12, I hit my iron into the green, and then they said, ‘You have five minutes to play,’” Smith said. “I hit my putt on that hole, then she said, ‘You have 30 seconds to play.’ I didn’t want to rush my par putt, so I chose to just wait until she blew the horn.”

Play was officially suspended at 4:32 p.m. It was pouring rain. A room inside the clubhouse was overflowing with 72 of the top amateur golfers and their caddies. Only one person had a better score than everyone in that room. That person was Kate Smith.

“The weird thing for me was a lot of people were looking at me and usually no one really knows me,” she said chuckling. “I checked my phone and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have a three-shot lead.’”

The tournament officials later announced that the first round was going to resume Thursday morning. Smith woke up the next morning at 5:15 a.m. and later headed to Champions Retreat to begin what would be a long day of golf.

“In golf, it’s always about the expectations, and I was trying to have the expectation that things were going to keep going and that I was gonna keep making birdies,” Smith said. “I was also being realistic with myself by understanding that the back side is tough. It’s 45 degrees out right now; things might not go the same.”

Smith made her par putt on 11 to keep her score at four-under but she wasn’t able to continue her hot play from Wednesday and finished the first round tied for fifth after making four bogeys.

“She was coming into a pretty difficult stretch of golf – those six holes,” Karter said. “I think the combination of the added pressure, the conditions and the difficulty is why she fell back a few in those final six holes.”

Smith started her second round at 12:50 p.m. on Thursday. She ended up shooting a seven-over 79 to put her tied for eleventh. The top 30 players move on to the final round at Augusta National on Saturday, and there was one spot left in the top 30. Smith along with four other players, were put into a five-person playoff for the final spot.

“It’s kind of a weird situation because you can have people eliminated on the first hole, but then you can also have no winner until you play a few more holes,” Smith explained. “I’ve been in those types of playoffs before. They’re not ever that fun, and at this caliber, I knew going in that a birdie was going to win.”

Smith was right, as Maja Stark out of Sweden was the only player who made birdie out of the five, which sent her to the final round.

The past few days were like a rollercoaster for Smith, and thinking back on it, she might have regretted one thing.

“Going into the second round, I was fifth, I was still in contention, by no means did I think I was gonna have to fight to make the cut at that point. That’s tough looking back,” Smith said. “Yeah, it would’ve been a lot easier if I just told myself, ‘Hey, just shoot 76 then we’ll go to Augusta on Saturday,’ but I felt like I was in contention and I could win the tournament. I was trying to give myself opportunities to do that and the course was really tough that afternoon.”

Even though Smith didn’t move on to the final round at Augusta National, she still fulfilled her dream of playing Augusta.

“It was awesome and definitely an experience of a lifetime, but I got to have hope that there’s another day that will have an awesome golf experience ahead of me as well.”

“On Friday, all the players got to play a practice round at Augusta. I played all the holes, I got a local caddie, I was there,” Smith said. “That’s probably going to go down as one of the best days of my life.”

It was also special for Smith’s parents to be there with her during that experience.

“It was so special and so cool,” Kris said. “She’s gonna be in the top 1% of women to play Augusta National in their lifetime. It’s just a very cool thing to put on her resume.”

Smith said she birdied holes seven and 15 while breaking 80 at Augusta National. She was done playing golf for the week but that didn’t mean her time in Georgia had come to an end quite yet.

“They book our flights so that we can stay to watch or to play, so I got to watch on Saturday,” Smith said. “The first 20 minutes were hard because I wanted to be out there playing, but I also got to spend the day at Augusta National watching great golf. So I got over it pretty fast.”

Japan’s Tsubasa Kajitani, 17, ended up winning the tournament after defeating Emilia Migliaccio in a sudden-death playoff.